Gov. Christie Slams War on Drugs, Advocates for Addiction Treatment
One of the worst-kept secrets in politics is that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is contemplating a run at the White House in 2016. As a Republican, he will need to shore up his conservative credentials if he expects to have a shot at the nomination, and some have already noticed a rightward shift in his public statements and proposed policy initiatives. This could be opportunism or could represent a legitimate shift in his positions, but it is certainly politics as usual and a surprise to absolutely no one.
But on one issue, Christie has raised a lot of eyebrows by refusing to budge on his core principles. Despite his interest in appealing to meat-and-potatoes, law-and-order types on the political right, the governor has frequently criticized the traditional approach to drug policy (a.k.a. the War on Drugs) while supporting the implementation of forward-thinking, non-punitive solutions to the problem of drug addiction.
Christie has called the War on Drugs a failure before and he did it again in a recent interview with NJ Advance Media, stating that addiction should be treated as a disease and that mandatory treatment for drug offenders is a far more sensible policy choice than mandatory incarceration. He says that over a year’s time, it costs twice as much to send a person to prison than to in-patient rehab, with the added bonus that a person who successfully undergoes treatment for addiction will be able to resume her role as a productive member of society.
Of course in politics talk is cheap, but over the past few years Christie has backed up his rhetoric on this issue with action. During his time as New Jersey’s governor, working together with state lawmakers on a bipartisan basis, Christie has:
- Dramatically expanded the use of drug courts for nonviolent drug offenders, even implementing mandatory treatment for certain classes of arrestees. Most states have drug courts, but New Jersey was the first to make treatment obligatory for some of the defendants sent there.
- Made sure the anti-overdose drug Narcan (naloxone) is readily available through emergency first responders and the police. Narcan is used to counteract the symptoms of prescription opioid or heroin overdose, and the drug has been credited with saving hundreds of lives in New Jersey since Christie’s initiatives got it put out into the field.
- Worked to forge a public/private partnership to increase the availability of treatment beds for New Jersey drug addicts seeking rehabilitation services. The money for construction of new facilities is expected to come largely from private investors, but Christie has promised the state will provide financial support to cover the costs of treatment for those who can’t afford to pay.
- Supported sweeping legislation that if signed into law would allow for more effective coordination of state anti-drug abuse efforts, specifically with respect to New Jersey’s exploding heroin epidemic. To iron out some differences of opinion, Christie will work closely with the Democratic leader of the New Jersey Senate before putting his signature on anti-addiction legislation that has already passed the state Assembly and Senate. This set of bills would boost drug abuse prevention efforts, fund expanded treatment for addiction and support a wealth of anti-drug education programs.
Christie’s statements and actions on the drug front have gained much attention and generated a good deal of discussion. But he is only one actor—albeit an important one—in a bipartisan effort, involving a multitude of politicos, to come to grips with New Jersey’s unfolding opioid disaster. In 2013, at least 740 New Jersey residents died from either a heroin or prescription opioid overdose, and in that same year 33,000 New Jerseyans were admitted to rehab facilities for treatment of an opioid addiction. This is more than the number of people who enrolled in treatment centers seeking help for alcoholism, a stunning indictment on just how out of control New Jersey’s opioid addiction problem has become.
Good Drug Policy Is Good Politics
Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Christie would turn away from the old anti-drug, law-and-order rhetoric, even if such views are still popular within segments of the Republican Party’s conservative base. Regardless of his national political ambitions, Christie would be doing a great disservice to the citizens of his state if he denied the need for new drug policies in the wake of the War on Drugs’ obvious failure.
By emphasizing cost efficiency as well as compassion in his public statements on this issue, Christie is effectively playing both sides of the issue, appealing to humanitarian concerns while also reinforcing his credentials as a fiscal conservative. Christie lost a close friend to opioid addiction, so his concerns are undoubtedly sincere and his economic analysis is indeed based on fact.
From a big picture perspective, Christie’s very public rejection of the old-style, law enforcement-centered approach to drug policy likely signifies a sea change in the way politicians of all ideological stripes will be dealing with this issue in the future. America’s burgeoning heroin epidemic, along with the continuing plague of deadly prescription painkiller addiction, is forcing all of us to adapt to the reality of the times, and that is especially true for those in positions of leadership. In the long run, smart anti-drug policy will stump stupid anti-drug strategies every time, and as more and more elected officials come to realize this, the winds of political expediency will blow even more strongly in the direction of change.